In honor of Facebook's 10th anniversary Tuesday, which falls just a few months before my own 10th Facebook anniversary, I went rooting through the decade's worth of stuff I've forked over to Mark Zuckerberg and co.
Huge mistake. Nothing could have prepared me for the heart palpitations. I tried to tilt my screen away from my coworkers to shield them from the hundreds of photos I had, in some four-year-long lapse of judgment following high school, allowed posted of me -- sticking out my tongue, flopping on couches, stuffing my face with food, wearing too-short tops, strenuously trying to look effortlessly glamorous, attempting to show I was having an amaaaaazing time (whoooo!!!) and, all in all, trying much, much too hard (WHOO WHOOOO!!!!). There was an album titled -- I'm cringing even now -- "Bro'ing and Ho'ing out - Spring Break '07."
I sent friends a volley of texts demanding to know to why they hadn't confiscated my computer when I'd first shown an inclination for photographic self-destruction. "omg I know," my roommate from junior year of college wrote back. "also -- TEN YEARS AHH."
Allow me to translate. Flipping through Facebook, awkward as it was, brought to mind something that hadn't occurred to us in years: Facebook used to be fun. Somewhere along the way, it got boring. Or, more accurately, we did.
As I scrolled through my profile to the present day, the unspeakable stuff began to disappear, replaced by retouched snaps from weddings and bland party pictures from tech conferences.
My generation, the first on Facebook, was supposed to grow into a noisy army of oversharers. Raised on a steady diet of social media TMI, we were expected to lump fuddy-duddy ideas about privacy and discretion in with bell-bottoms and shoulder pads -- peculiar things our parents were into once. At the rate we were going back then, and judging by the way adults rolled their eyes at us, we should be broadcasting from the bathroom by now.
But when I poke through 10 years of Facebook, I see something else altogether. We're not an oversharing generation. We're a generation that's over sharing -- done, finished, kaput, through. Instead of feeding Zuckerberg's beast an ever expanding range of intimate details from our lives and believing in his promise that baring all would help us bond, we've covered up. All the chatty candor and hyperactive disclosure of our early years on Facebook now look like just another kind of youthful indulgence, like cargo shorts and spray tans, that we embraced once, tired of, then cast aside.
* * *
In the beginning, TheFacebook.com was to college students what fire must have been to early man: empowering and impossible to look away from. Anyone who tells you otherwise either is being deliberately contrary or was a more socially well-adjusted person than I.
As someone who spent (OK, spends) too much time wondering whether everyone I know is having fun out without me, Facebook was a gift from the benevolent nerd-gods of Harvard University. I could socialize without having to be invited anywhere, join conversations I wasn't having and learn inside jokes from the outside. Even better: for the first time, I could exist, constantly and continuously, like some sort of nagging worry, in the minds of all the people I cared about.
Which is how I ended up with so many photos in albums with names like "flowmentum" or "How Cool Is THAT?!" Facebook was a 24-hour party and our digital doubles were its 24-hour party people, all vying to be the most intriguing invitee on the guest list. We used Facebook to create more hilarious, attractive, popular-seeming versions of ourselves, then deployed them to be checked out, invited places and flirted with. NASA's Saturn V was great and all, but this Facebook thing -- here was a truly miraculous engineering breakthrough, a pinnacle of human ingenuity that offered, at last, a means of telling the world about all the very cool, very flowmentum-y things we were doing, without needing anyone to ask, much less care.
Yet cycling through my Facebook time capsule, I see that sometime around the fall of 2009, my flood of then-awesome/now-mortifying photos all but stopped. In 2008, I posted or was tagged in around nine dozen photos. Last year, that number dropped to a measly eight. Not eight dozen -- just eight pictures, total.
I immediately conclude that the Great Photo Shortage of 2013 occurred because I've become a tragically lame person. I'm working now, as are my friends, who on the whole have similarly anemic photo albums. But then I remember the adventures I had in the months where, according to Facebook, I'd done nothing worth recording. I congratulate myself. I am, at least for now, still fun.
Then a happier explanation strikes me. I and my peers have become mature, self-assured grownups, no longer desperate to impress one another with our enormous groups of friends or stylish ways. But then everything ever posted in the history of the insta-sucess Instragram tells me that's not it either: picture after pretty picture of pretty people in pretty places doing pretty fancy things to make others pretty jealous of their pretty fancy lives.
In fact, what I gather from the staid sharing I see on present-day Facebook is that Zuckerberg was wrong about the thing he arguably wanted to change most of all -- and even claimed he had changed: our generation's eagerness to make everything known.
The pictures I dug up on Facebook appalled me not because they were in any way illicit or incriminating. Their intimacy distressed me. I can't believe my younger self's candor, my willingness to share so much of what I did with my life. Now, those vacation pictures or dinner party snapshots would be whisked away to the safety of a Dropbox for invitation-only viewing.
Nor am I the lone recluse. The Pew Research Center celebrated Facebook's double-digit birthday by asking 1,800 people what they strongly disliked about the social network. The top five gripes all had to do with feeling over-exposed online.
Four years ago, Zuckerberg declared that privacy was no longer a "social norm," as though saying it would make it true.
It hasn't. For all the ways Facebook has supposedly changed us over the past 10 years -- the surge in narcissism, loneliness, bullying, insert-your-favorite-malady-here -- it hasn't loosened our grip on our own personal lives, or on our desire for carefully staged identities. I'm not saying we don't share things, or even personal things. That would be absurd. But whether it's out of concern for keeping our jobs or fear of who's lurking among our 857 friends (most of whom we don't even remember), I see a Facebook generation less inclined than ever to make their lives an open book. More so than just a few years ago, our online personas are meticulously assembled characters acting out whatever story we write for them.
People still share up the wazoo. They just aren't sharing their, ahem, wazoos the way they used to. What we've discovered is that anything we say or do can and will be used against us -- in a court of law, at the office, during a party, by a boyfriend, or by the friend who wasn't invited to dinner. It's easier to be selective about what we share than to deal with the fallout from a photo that hurts feelings or, now that we're adults with careers, gets us fired. Besides, with so many other ways of telling the world about what we're up to -- erasable Snapchats, private Picasa albums, one-on-one WhatsApp -- why go to the biggest, most public social network of them all?
In 2011, Facebook presented us with all the tools we needed to build an even more comprehensive time capsule. This one would archive for posterity every news story read, song listened to, movie watched, outfit considered, or piercing received. It encouraged us to add pivotal "Life Events" to our profiles, like going out on a first date or getting contact lenses. I could, thanks to Facebook, remember not only that great day where life changed irreversibly for the better, but even see what Bruce Springsteen song I'd been listening to a mere minutes before I picked up my Acuvue.
And what did we do with this glorious ability? Nothing. The products, almost without exception, tanked. Instead, we demonstrated the impulse for total artistic license that Friedrich Nietzsche described a century ago. We want, he wrote, "to be the poets of our lives, and first of all in the smallest and most commonplace matters."
Pay attention next time you take a photograph. You can actually chart the Facebook generation's shift away from sharing by the exhortations that accompany the pressing of a camera's shutter.
"Promise to tag this!" people used to beg as they lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the lens. That gave way to, "Swear you won't tag me." Now, no one says anything: It's just assumed no one would be so vulgar, so mean-spirited as to capture this moment, put your name on it and let the world see what you were up to. Perhaps in the digital sense, just like in every other dimension, we really are turning into our parents. Pass the shoulder pads.